It is expected that the average millennial will have more than four careers throughout their lifetime. When you also consider the increasingly global nature of our economy, you realize that at some point you will be working with people or a company from another culture. Your ability to work effectively in that situation will determine your success or failure.
Learning to navigate through varying cultural etiquettes is a skill all career-minded millennials should develop. If you already speak a second language, have lived in another country, or have even traveled a few times internationally, you have a head start. If not, no need to worry. Being aware there are different etiquettes and being willing to learn them when needed is your most valuable asset.
Cultural etiquette refers to the guidelines for what is polite and appropriate behavior in a country or culture. Every day, you adhere to different sets of etiquette in the United States: business, personal, and familial.
You probably don’t think of the rules in that manner, but you are aware of what your boss, your coworkers, your friends, and your family consider to be rude and polite behaviors. There may even be some different rules in each case. Well, it is not any different from other countries.
Each country has its own rules of accepted and appropriate behavior that will differ from what you currently know.
As Americans, we often think that other western cultures will be similar enough to ours that it will not matter, especially if they are English speaking. However, this is not true; each country has its own context, and your awareness of this dictates your success.
Hopefully, on your first out-of-country business trip, you will have coworkers to help guide you through the correct behaviors. If your company has decided it is time to go global, and you are on the cutting edge, there is one thing to keep in mind about the process of learning that first country’s customs: be respectful.
This is someone else’s culture. While aspects of it might seem silly to you, it is probably rooted in hundreds of years of tradition for them. That is not something to ignore. You would expect them to respect you if the roles were reversed. Even if you do make a faux pas, if you are seen as trying your best and being respectful, it will be probably be ignored rather than becoming a deal-breaker.
While each country will probably have its quirks, there seem to be five main areas of difference.
Greetings and Forms of address
First impressions can help or taint negotiations. If you greet someone correctly, it will get you started on the right foot. It is surprising how many variations there are in greetings. In America, a firm handshake with good eye contact is expected, and most people are fine being addressed by their first name.
Business cards are simply a tool to exchange information and are handled quite casually. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Asian countries which have more structured rules. For example, in Japan, business cards are treated with respect, presented more than given, and are always given with two hands.
Often business cards are exchanged even before greetings, which are usually bows rather than handshakes. Other variances include France, where handshakes are much lighter, and Germany, where you introduce yourself by the last name only.
Appropriate clothing is dictated not only by the culture but often also by the industry. If you are in the heavy manufacturing industry, more casual clothing might be appropriate. However, it is rarely wrong to be dressed in business conservative. If unsure, wait until you see how your counterpart is dressed.
For women, it can be a little more difficult. Pants are problematic in some countries; heel height and skirt length must all be carefully considered. Conservative and dark colors are always safe. Women should always go easy on the accessories.
The concept of punctuality varies from country to country. In the United States, being on time usually means being five or ten minutes early. In Russia, you must be on time, but your hosts will quite often be extremely late. Australians consider being 15 minutes early on time.
The importance of deadlines is also variable. Germans adhere strongly to timelines, whereas the Spanish and Mexicans often view them more like guidelines than hard and fast rules.
Sharing a meal is a time-honored way of bonding. Unfortunately, it is also one of the trickiest when it comes to etiquette. Obviously, just the differences in food can be problematic, especially if you are a picky eater.
In many countries, it is rude to not eat everything on your plate, whereas in Taiwan, you are expected to leave some rice in your bowl. In India, they eat mostly with their right hand, never with their left and rarely with utensils.
In Chile, it is rude to eat anything with your fingers, and in Germany, you even cut up a hamburger and eat it with a knife and fork. Beverages also have many rules.
In Russia, you can never turn down vodka or mix it with anything. Here in America, we love our Starbucks at any time, but in Italy, you can only have cappuccino before noon.
It is rare when you won’t have to make at least some small talk with your counterpart. In Switzerland, it is rude to ask about personal matters, whereas in China, questions about salary or the size of your house are normal.
You must also be careful about compliments. In some middle eastern countries, if you admire something, your host may feel obligated to give it to you. Even if you need a translator, make sure you have some knowledge of their country, specific city or area, and culture to use as conversation starters.
Cultural etiquette is an important skill for everyone, but imperative for anyone looking to succeed in the international corporate world. If you are known as someone with impeccable cultural etiquette skills, you will be valuable to any company.
If you have a connection with a specific country, learn everything you can about that country: language, customs, and business culture. You can use your expertise to market yourself to businesses looking to expand in that country or even organizations doing social work there.
It can be hard for a company to effectively market in another country. Your expertise can help a global company avoid any missteps when going local.
If you are a millennial contemplating your career path, make time to develop cultural awareness. It will help you in all of your endeavors.